The 13-0, second-ranked Michigan Wolverines open Big Ten conference play on Thursday night in Evanston, Ill., against 9-4 Northwestern.
The underdog Wildcats will be heavily shorthanded, while Michigan may be without a key player of its own. Northwestern leading scorer Reggie Hearn will sit out this one with an injury — further depleting a team that lost Drew Crawford to a season-ending injury in December. The Wolverines, meanwhile, may have to get by without Tim Hardaway Jr., who missed their last game with an ankle injury.
Tip is at 7 p.m. on ESPN. And in this edition of “Wolverines Walkthrough”, we break down what might happen once game begins …
How Michigan Can Win: Make Northwestern work on offense.
The Wolverines coughed up 73 points to an up-tempo Central Michigan team in their last game. Northwestern, especially with Hearn joining Crawford on the sideline, will not play nearly as fast a game. Minus their two leading scorers, the Wildcats should have difficulty finding points — and Michigan needs to make sure that’s the case.
Trey Burke will help with that aim, considering how well he’s taken care of the ball this season. Defensively, though, Michigan should be able to limit Northwestern’s number of open looks, especially if the Maize and Blue protect the boards.
As usual, Northwestern has its fair share of guys that can step out and drain the three. Michigan needs to make sure those players have hands in their faces. If the Wildcats are going to milk the clock, the Wolverines have to limit their open opportunities.
How Northwestern Can Win: Force Michigan outside.
The Wolverines are comfortable beyond the arc, with guys like Burke, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and so on capable of heating up. But for Northwestern, the alternative to that is watching Burke slice through the lane to set up Robinson, Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary for easy hoops.
Even if the Wildcats employ multiple zone looks, as they’re wont to do, keeping Burke from penetrating is a daunting task. Still, if Northwestern wants to stay in this game, it must push Michigan away from the basket — even if that means hoping the Wolverines’ shooters have an off day.
The X-Factor: Michigan’s youth.
The Wolverines have had a decent amount of success at Northwestern’s barn, but every win there seems to be a hard-fought, back-and-forth affair. Don’t be surprised if that’s the case again Thursday.
And if it is, will Michigan’s young guns be ready? We’ve seen Stauskas, McGary, Robinson, Spike Albrecht and (recently) Caris LeVert thrive in the nonconference portion of the schedule, but the stakes are higher now. Michigan struggled at Bradley, too, flailing down the stretch as the crowd started sniffing an upset.
There certainly are worse places for the Wolverines to open their Big Ten road campaign — a matchup at Ohio State, for example, looms in a little more than a week. But if the Wolverines’ youngsters think this will be easy, they have another thing coming.
Prediction: Even if Hardaway cannot suit up in this one, the matchups favor Michigan across the board — especially since Hearn will sit. Of course, Illinois had the matchup advantage at Purdue Wednesday and fell, just a reminder that the Big Ten will be a bear this season.
But as long as Burke keeps playing at or near the level he’s been at, it’s hard to imagine Northwestern creating enough easy baskets to keep pace. The Wolverines will pull away in the second half.
Michigan 78, Northwestern 63